Taking a Dip in the Woods

I was eight years old the last time I climbed a tree. My younger brother and I sat side by side, inching dangerously toward the edge of a branch, and laughing and bouncing until it came close to cracking. Henry continued to climb trees for years after this - once, my mother even had to talk him down from a towering evergreen. But I had put away childish things, such as chasing ice cream trucks, flying kites - and, yes, climbing trees. After all, scampering up a tree trunk was considered behaviour ‘unbecoming’ for a girl.

But I’m 55 now. And I have a hankering to climb a tree again.

I blame Ben Porchuk. He’s one of Canada’s first certified forest therapy guides. He loves climbing trees and can’t get enough of it. He even arranges group outings for folks to climb trees together, believing that more of us should be making friends with trees. That’s why, when I join him and a small group on a three-hour forest therapy outing in Toronto’s 175-acre Sunnybrook Park, he urges us to introduce ourselves to a tree as part of our topiary therapy.

Porchuk suggests this as if it’s as rational as asking the raccoon, which we just saw perched at the flap of a garbage pail, if we could shake its paw or inquiring of the squirrel, which has skittered across our path, if we might join it on its daily run around the park.

Not only does he want us to introduce ourselves to a tree, he wants us to ask it a question. Outwardly, I act like I’m game, but I’m really thinking: awkward! This feels about as natural as walking into a cliquey cocktail party and not knowing a soul. It turns out, though, that you never know whom you might befriend in the forest.

The Japanese practice of forest bathing - or shinrin-yoku  - is not an energetic stride in the woods. It’s more meander than march, so there’s no use bringing a Fitbit. Instead of lying on a couch, you stretch out in a meadow, put your feet in a creek or talk to a tree. All of this makes you feel better thanks to the natural pharmaceutical, phytoncide, an essential oil that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. It’s the serotonin of the forest, and its mechanism of delivery is deep inhalation. It helps in the recovery from modern life stresses, improves cognition and lowers blood pressure. In fact, there are a host of clinical studies proving that a simple stroll under a lush green canopy helps us to drop our worldly woes the way a maple sheds its leaves in October.

Porchuk begins our walk with a pagan prayer (“Holy Mother in whom we live, move and have our being/From you all things emerge and unto you all things return“) and asks us to recall a favourite “sit spot” we had as child -  a place we would return to again and again in nature to find some form of comfort. I remember how I used to ride my 10-speed bike to a small stream on a farmer’s property. There, under the graceful arms of a weeping willow, I would write letters to my absent father and compose poems about a neighbour boy whom I had a crush on before burying them in the earth.

Porchuk plays a wooden flute as we wander, leading us through a series of “invitations.” In one, “notice of motion,” we’re required to look for any movement in nature. I peer so closely at a couple of flitting dragonflies that I can see their shadows dancing on a broad leaf. The tops of a bank of elderly pines also sway languidly as if to say, “What’s your hurry?” And below us the Don River maintains its eternal movement, its surface punctuated by commas and curlicues.

In the “pleasure of presence,” we stand in a circle to experience the forest through all of our senses, listening for the nearest and furthest sounds, feeling the breeze on our skin and running our finger along the ribs of a leaf. When Porchuk suggests that we stick out our tongues to see what we might taste, I notice the bitter tang of morning coffee still lingering in my mouth. When I open my eyes, I catch sight of a single dewdrop glimmering so brightly on the tip of a leaf that I can see it from 15 feet away. How like that dewdrop we are, so often trembling and hanging on for dear life.

When it’s time for the much-anticipated “introduction to a tree” invitation, several of us link hands to walk across a rocky stream to a small sandy shore. I lie down with my feet in the stream and survey the party of trees gathered before me. I pass over the spindly looking one that’s clearly suffering from drought and doesn’t look like it has much to say. Then I settle on a tall, muscular one with a crown full of leafy branches. I stare at it for a good time - its dark base rooted in the dank soil and its quivering leaves some 100 feet in the air. The tree’s name then pops into my head: the Tree of Darkness and Lightness. It’s the less judgmental version of the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s because this particular tree needs both the black earth and the bright sunshine to survive. We have more in common than I realized.

Next, it’s time for my question. Never one for small talk, I go deep immediately: “How do I make my life matter?” I ask the tree, taking in its half dozen large branches. Each has a dozen or so smaller branches, which, in turn, sprout dozens more offshoots that reach for the sun. The tree’s answer comes to me: There’s no single way to make one’s life meaningful. There’s no solitary achievement to make the most of our wild and precious life. Rather, there are dozens -  if not hundreds -  of opportunities to do so. Every tiny offshoot can represent some important action, even if it’s just some small act of kindness. In other words, there are so many ways to bring life meaning. It’s then that I realize that I’m a mere seedling that still has much to learn.

Our forest bathing session ends with a ceremonial tea made from plants Porchuk has collected during our walk. These include eastern hemlock, white cedar and nuts from the American beech, which, Porchuk points out, is the only lightning-resistant tree in the world. A skilled wildlife biologist and ecologist, he has no trouble telling the difference between a hickory and a hawthorn. Botanically ignorant, myself, I have trouble distinguishing a fern from a fig leaf. Again, I still have much to learn.

Still, the three-hour immersion in nature has left me feeling brand spanking new, inside and out. My toes are wrinkled and my mind is blissfully empty. It’s like being born again.

But now I have this hankering to climb a tree.

As part of his forest therapy services, Porchuk also conducts tree-climbing sessions. “Tree climbing gives us new vantage points, opens our hearts to joy and playfulness, and reconnects us to the value of measuring every step in life as though it is our last,” he writes in his blog, Lost and Found in Nature.

There’s a whole movement of tree climbers (not to be confused with their close cousins, the tree huggers). A new bestseller, The Tree Climber’s Guide, is a treatise on the art of scaling trees. There’s even a worldwide association of people who love to climb trees just for the fun of it.

I consider signing up for Porchuk’s upcoming outing, which involves climbing a 65-foot spruce. But first, I need some practice.

So I head out to a wooded area near my house and spot what I consider to be the perfect “entry-level” climbing tree. (I think it’s an oak, but, then again, I’m botanically challenged). It has two large trunks splitting off diagonally at its base and requires more crawling than climbing. I manage to scamper about ten feet up.

I ask you, is it ‘unbecoming’ for a 55-year-old woman to perch herself in a tree? Will people look at me funny if they happen to see me? Will they think I’m a “crazy lady?” After all, there’s a long history of “crazy” women living in trees. Just consider Julia Hill, who lived in a 180-foot California redwood for two years to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting it down.

My pursuit, alas, is not so noble. I’m just looking for some forest medicine. I struggle to get comfortable. There’s a broken branch I need to work my way around because it’s positioned indelicately at my rear. After I manoeuvre myself a little higher, I lie back to take in my surroundings. Below me, there’s a nest of rotting crabapples on the ground, along with a torn condom package (apparently, I’m not the only one who has lain in repose here). Above me, the birds are in full choir mode, and the loving arms of dozens of tall trees form a canopy that sways like a cradle. Their branches stretch towards the heavens in eternal optimism. I bathe in their beauty -  my back firmly supported by the solid trunk -  finally comfortable on my perch.

I’m no longer lithe-limbed, but I am eight again. And once again, the world is full of wonder.